Peter Hunt and Molly Vanderlin in the Bricks Theatre's The Mercy Seat.
Walking into a Neil LaBute play, I feel like I should brace for impact. LaBute, who wrote and directed In the Company of Men -- the film that launched the career of his frequent collaborator, Aaron Eckhart -- creates characters who run the gamut from morally ambiguous to outright repellent. Misogynists, cheaters and jerks are his stock in trade.
In its latest production, the Bricks Theatre takes on LaBute's 2002 play, The Mercy Seat, which mines territory riddled with moral dilemmas. In roles originated in its sold-out New York run by Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver, local actors Peter Hunt and Molly Vanderlin play Ben and Abby, who've been having a long-term affair. The play opened Thursday night at 827 E. Washington Ave.
You might be tempted to call them "lovers," except that term seems so ill-suited to their liaison. They bicker, insult and jab each other, only occasionally lapsing into moments of brief tenderness. They don't seem to even like themselves, much less love each other.
We meet the combative pair in Abby's New York loft on a day like no other -- Sept. 12, 2001, just a day after terrorist attacks have killed thousands only blocks away. Ben's cell phone rings and rings, his wife calling to find out whether he's dead or alive.
When the towers were struck, Ben should have been inside at a meeting; instead, he was having a sexual encounter at Abby's. Now Ben questions whether or not this moment of national tragedy has opened up a space to reinvent his life. Will he make the choice to allow his own family to believe he's dead, just so he can start over someplace else with Abby? "This is our moment," he urges her. Though the set-up is a bit preposterous, LaBute's play gets at the ways in which we, even in the midst of terrible circumstances, can think and act in petty self-interest.
There's an appropriately rueful, dazed, weary quality to Hunt's portrayal of Ben, punctuated by bouts of anger. He's dissatisfied with his life, yet seemingly unable to commit fully to either his wife and kids or his mistress, who also happens to be his boss.
And not surprisingly for a LaBute play, what used to be called the battle between the sexes is in full swing, too. "You're the guy in this relationship," Ben spits accusingly at Abby. Even their sex life -- dissected in detail -- seems to play out his attempt to gain the upper hand.
LaBute's dialogue, like that of David Mamet, is rapid-fire and often profane. He aims for a realistic style in which people cut each other off or let sentences go unfinished. While it seemed to take Hunt and Vanderlin a few minutes to get the rhythm going, they eventually locked into LaBute's brutal groove.
Under the direction of Bricks co-founder George Gonzalez, this is a heady production that asks us to consider not only world events (is it really possible 9/11 was nearly a decade ago?) but the ways in which we fall short ethically and the rationalizations we pile on to cover those failings.